Hunting big game in Alaska with the help of remote-controlled, camera-equipped aircraft will be illegal later this year when new regulations take effect.
At its March 14-18 meeting in Anchorage, the seven-member Alaska Board of Game approved a measure to prohibit hunters from spotting game with such aircraft, often called drones. While the practice does not appear to be widespread, Alaska Wildlife Troopers said the technology is becoming cheaper, easier to use and incorporates better video relay to the user on the ground.
A drone system allowing a hunter or helper to locate game now costs only about $1,000, said Capt. Bernard Chastain, operations commander for the Wildlife Troopers. Because of advances in the technology and cheaper prices, it is inevitable hunters seeking an advantage would, for example, try to use a drone to fly above trees or other obstacles and look for a moose or bear to shoot, he said.
"Under hunting regulations, unless it specifically says that it's illegal, you're allowed to do it," Chastain said. "What happens a lot of times is technology gets way ahead of regulations, and the hunting regulations don't get a chance to catch up for quite a while."
Troopers brought up the issue with game board members in February after hearing about a drone-assisted moose kill in Interior Alaska in 2012, Chastain said. That moose hunt was reported to troopers by state Department of Fish and Game staff, the trooper captain said, but there were few details about it, because the moose kill was apparently legal and troopers did not investigate it.
"I think more than anything, the change in the law represents thoughts that we've heard for several years, and based upon how the regulations are written, we had to take an affirmative step to make those illegal," Chastain said.
After hearing from the troopers, the Board of Game itself submitted the proposal and voted unanimously to pass it at the recent meeting, said Kristy Tibbles, the board's executive director. The draft regulation will be sent to the Department of Law for review and is expected to be law on July 1, Tibbles said.
As written and approved by the board, the new regulation on drones aims to eliminate a possible advantage similar to one gained by a hunter flying in a conventional aircraft. But unlike that rule, which allows hunters to harvest an animal a day or more after flying, spotting big game with a drone and shooting it will be illegal at any time.
Chastain said that distinction came from the difficulty of enforcing a similar "same-day airborne" regulation for drones: It's harder for troopers or others who might report illegal use of drones to see a small aircraft and link its use to a harvested animal.
Still, prohibiting the use of drones is based on the same principle of fairness as the same-day airborne regs, Chastain said.
In the proposed regulation, remote-controlled aircraft are listed with unlawful hunting methods including the use of poison, bombs, radio communication or exploding salt licks, among other things.
"Other people don't have a fair opportunity to take game if somebody else is able to do that," Chastain said. "On the biology side, if you make it too easy to take animals, then there's not opportunity for everybody else out there, because they can only allow so many animals to be taken."
By CASEY GROVE
Alaska Dispatch Publishing